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Is Scientific Inquiry Restricted To Nature?

It is often said that the scientific enterprise is in the business of studying the natural world, the implication being that there’s some pre-established, pre-packaged thing out there called Nature that scientists get to study, after which there are other domains that scientists don’t get to study and indeed aren’t supposed to study.

In fact, the scientific enterprise is engaged in analyzing anything that comes along using its agreed-upon empirical methodologies, developed over the years as the most effective means to reduce subjective and cultural bias when modeling reality.

If, for example, someone were to come up with a robust God hypothesis that suggested observational tests to evaluate its validity, then rest assured, scientists would be hopping all over it — what better way to the vaunted goal of scientific fame and glory than documenting the existence of God?  Indeed, scientists have already applied their wares to testable hypotheses along these lines, such as whether intercessory prayer is effective, and have thus far come a cropper.

When scientists understand something using their methodologies, it’s thus far been the case that what they discover fits in with other discoveries using the same methodologies. The collective fitted-together understandings have been given a name — nature. When scientists discover something that doesn’t fit with previous understandings of nature — e.g., relativity — they enlarge their understandings of nature to include it, and discard understandings that, with hindsight, are either based on flawed experiments or applicable only to particular circumstances.

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Each enlarged understanding has thus far continued to pass the fitting-together test, as well as tests of predictive confirmation using empirical observation. Nature continues to be a coherent, unified whole when depicted by our most reliable models of reality. That said, whether newly discovered phenomena will continue to fit together with ongoing understandings is a perpetually open question.

As scientific understandings have matured, many features of the natural world that were thought to be explainable only by some supernatural agency have lost that attribute. Thunder is no longer considered as the sound of galloping stallions ridden by the gods of the Pantheon. This trajectory has led to what has come to be called "the God of the Gaps:" supernatural agency is invoked to explain an ever-diminishing set of phenomena, namely, the “gaps” that remain in an otherwise coherent scientific account. A salient gap in present times, of course, is our very incomplete grasp of what’s going on at the quantum level, and not surprisingly there exist a number of variations on the theme that God somehow acts by manipulating “quantum uncertainty.”

The God-as-agent hypothesis is inherently a non-starter (thus far) because science requires any element of an acceptable explanation to have some evidential backing independent of its purported explanatory role. Absent that requirement, we’d be at liberty to claim the existence of some arbitrary process or entity that has the powers necessary to fill any explanatory gap — how convenient! Saying that God intervenes in nature, without a clear specification of divine powers that can be observationally confirmed, is to posit an unexplained explainer, a mysterious causal operator. The scientific project is intent on dispelling mysteries, not appealing to them.

In its single-minded quest for explanatory transparency and predictive reliability, science has no metaphysical axe to grind. It isn’t committed in advance to physicalism, naturalism, or any other worldview or philosophy. Instead, its ontology is strictly determined by the explanatory and predictive success of its theories. In the process, some very strange phenomena have come to light or are in gestation: black holes, quarks, superstrings, non-local quantum entanglement, “dark energy,” and whatever else might be in the wings. Scientists don’t blink at the outrageous: it’s what they’ve come to expect.

So, could science stumble upon and observationally confirm the existence of the supernatural, or something besides nature? If we define nature as what’s confirmed to exist by science-based inquiry, then it would seem that any confirmed scientific discovery, however bizarre, will get added to the list of natural phenomena. This implies that sticking with science results in naturalism, that only nature exists.

But such is not necessarily the case. Although the God-as-agent hypothesis hasn’t yet panned out, this isn’t because science is biased against the existence of God or the supernatural. If an observationally robust phenomenon comes along that, for good theoretical or explanatory reasons, forces us to conceptually divide reality into nature and something besides nature, then so be it. We’d have stayed true to the scientific method, unrivaled in giving us reliable models of reality and for scientists in their professional capacity that’s what matters.

Tom Clark is guest co-blogger. He is Director of the Center for Naturalism